Turnbull’s moment of truth

Today 15.6 million Australians will pass the definitive judgement on Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership coup against Tony Abbott. Turnbull’s personal ambition aside, there was only one purpose in that event – survival of the Coalition government beyond this election. After 30 consecutive negative Newspolls enough Liberals were convinced they were doomed if they stuck with Abbott. He never believed it and still doesn’t.

What’s not to be underestimated is the visceral fear gripping Coalition politicians that the judgement of failure they passed on their own government back in September is about to be visited on them by the electorate. It’s extraordinary when you think on it. A big part of the motivation for the putsch was Liberals thinking that if Tony Abbott could make Bill Shorten look good – indeed, make him the preferred prime minister – then sticking with him was a hopeless cause. Turnbull, on the other hand, polled like a sure thing.

How the tables have turned. As late as last week the News Corp tabloids commissioned Galaxy to run a counter-factual poll. It found that if Abbott were leading the Coalition today, instead of Turnbull, they would be wiped out in a 53-47 landslide. The Murdoch-owned Labor-averse papers would not have embarked on such a strange exercise if they were confident Turnbull was riding high. The same poll came up with a 50-50 deadlock when opinions on the current reality were tested.

What is worrying Labor is the prospect of a late big swing back to the government. It wasn’t showing up midweek. One ALP candidate in a key marginal seat said he has personally made 5000 phone calls during the past year. He has found disengagement but in recent days more interest in what is on offer. Disappointment with Malcolm Turnbull is playing on the minds of many of the people this candidate calls, and there is real interest in Labor’s health and education pitch.

But the same candidate is worried that the economic debate, particularly in the last critical week, could have been better framed. At the National Press Club on Tuesday Shorten did a good job of tying his Medicare and Gonski school funding reforms into a sharper economic argument, with jobs and opportunity the goal. The nub of it: a healthy, better-educated workforce would contribute to greater productivity.

But while Shorten was spruiking his message, Treasurer Scott Morrison was assuring the nation the government’s campaign spending was being more than paid for. His big reveal was a $2 billion crackdown on welfare compliance. Never mind that it’s a bit dodgy. When you add this to the $5 billion earmarked from the same sort of measures in his and Joe Hockey’s budgets, you wonder how much milk this particular cow has.

Besides, both the major parties are ultimately in the red. The difference between them over the forward estimates is small. Labor’s $16.5 billion extra equates to 0.9 per cent of planned Coalition spending over the next four years. What is frustrating some in the opposition camp, however, is that was more than enough to feed massive bad headlines. Morrison didn’t miss it, talking all week of Labor’s bigger debt and deficits – “the last thing you want in these uncertain times”.

But Labor HQ says the mind-boggling arguments over millions and billions of dollars on the never-never is not resonating as much as their framing the election as a Medicare referendum. Not surprising, as families struggle with falling living standards and stagnating wages. The claim is bolstered by the Essential poll finding 50 per cent of Australians believe the government does have a privatisation agenda of some sort.

With no proof other than a 51-49 Newspoll the Coalition’s way on Monday, many pundits agreed with the optimism coming out of Liberal campaign HQ that the momentum was turning the government’s way. But an Essential poll on Tuesday found the reverse. The real poll today will put an end to these arguments. Bill Shorten claimed midweek that “there is a discernible mood to change the government”.

Bob McMullan, who was Labor’s campaign director in three winning elections in the 1980s, cautioned against taking too much notice of polling in individual marginal seats. He told a forum at the Australian National University that in one election his party’s pollsters reported it was doing well in a number of seats. Come election day, the ALP did do well in many marginals, he said, but not the ones the pollsters identified.

Malcolm Turnbull warned his party faithful last Sunday that they should always expect the unexpected. This was in the aftermath of the British referendum that voted for the country to leave the European Union. Late polls picked up a swing back to the “Remain” side of the argument. The shock result sent reverberations through financial markets and Turnbull used this as yet another reason to stick with the stable majority government that he says only he can deliver. But whether we even get a majority Coalition government today is a moot point. The unexpected for Turnbull and the nation could well be a majority Labor government. A tall order, sure. Labor would need to win a minimum 19 seats.

Shorten used the Brexit result to draw a very different lesson. He said the Liberals talk about stability but they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the source-spring of instability: “It comes from a sense of inequality, from people being marginalised, forgotten. A sense that political promises are wasted words.” And in the Australian context, he sheeted this alienation home: “[It’s] from exactly the same sort of policies Malcolm Turnbull offers at this election: tax cuts for the rich, nothing for the working and middle class.”

Whether the “alienated” will come to Labor as more in touch with their concerns is debatable. A third of the electorate, according to the opinion polls, is fed up with the major parties. And there is no shortage of high-profile independent populists on offer, particularly in the senate. Pauline Hanson in Queensland is a less polished antipodean version of Britain’s Nigel Farage. Turnbull is urging people not to vote for her, Glenn Lazarus, Jacqui Lambie or Nick Xenophon.

The biggest beneficiary, though, looks like being the Nick Xenophon Team, particularly in South Australia. The leader of the eponymous outfit is not so sure. Xenophon is exhausted after the gruelling campaign and bruised by concerted attacks on him from the two major parties and a hitherto fawning media. He is stung by Labor hammering his one-time support for penalty rates to be trimmed. It’s surprising he can’t believe his “mea culpa”, as he calls it, would not be accepted as the last word. When asked how he thinks his candidates will go, he gives a tired “dunno”.

What is clear is that Turnbull’s rush of blood to the head in calling a double dissolution to clean out the obstructive senate is sure to prove foolhardy. Even before a vote is counted the quota needed to win a senate seat is halved, making it so much easier for independents to get in. We could see a crossbench of nine, including three NXT senators plus at least six Greens. There is every possibility Turnbull may not muster the numbers for a joint sitting of both houses to pass his contentious industrial relations bills. In fact, there could be fewer Liberal and National senators, not more.

Turnbull’s promise of a stable majority government that would not include the vanquished Abbott in the ministry may prove a hard ask, too. Everybody agrees the Liberals will lose seats. The Nationals may well emerge strengthened. They have three seats under threat. The most newsworthy is New England, where their leader is under challenge from the independent Tony Windsor. The Nationals may even win a couple of seats from the Liberals. This would mean a renegotiated Coalition agreement with more Nationals in cabinet and the ministry. Barnaby Joyce has already signalled he’ll push hard for a more conservative agenda on climate and marriage equality.

In fact, the storm clouds are gathering over same-sex marriage. The conservatives want the plebiscite question to be as unfriendly as possible. Tony Abbott’s old chief of staff, Peta Credlin, is predicting Coalition chaos on the gay marriage vote. On Sky she even raised the possibility of a threat to Turnbull’s leadership: “I think it will be a very big schism inside the Liberal Party, going back to territory of 2009.” This was a none-too-subtle reference to the last time Turnbull lost the top job at the hands of party room conservatives.

The prime minister has, for the most part, kept the issue under wraps during the campaign. So much so the electorate has been given no clues other than a vague promise that, in terms of plebiscite timing, he “expects it to happen this year”. In the face of fierce resistance, he and attorney-general George Brandis shelved plans to bring in an enabling bill with the terms of the plebiscite spelled out a few months ago.

Turnbull says the media is running the risk of “exaggerating this”. But he should be under no illusions the issue will become a power struggle that he may well lose if he emerges from the election with his authority further diminished.

Bill Shorten posed the question during the week that may cause many to stop and think in the polling booths: “We’re in it to win enough seats to form government. How many seats does Malcolm Turnbull have to lose before Tony Abbott moves on him?”

That question, at least, will not be answered today.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2016 as "The moment of truth".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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